We recently demonstrated that insulin growth factor-I (IGF-I) cosegregates with bone mineral density (BMD) in progenitor crosses of two inbred strains of mice. Additionally, we reported that men with idiopathic osteoporosis (IOM) have low serum IGF-I levels, which can be related to BMD and bone turnover. In this study, we considered the possibility that serum IGF-I levels are influenced by molecular genetic variation in the IGF-I structural gene, and that a polymorphic microsatellite (CA repeat) in this locus can be used as a genetic marker for such comparisons. We studied 171 men and women, classified according to the trial in which they were participating. First, in 25 Caucasian men with IOM we noted a very high frequency (64%) of homozygosity for the most common allele (192 bp) in a dinucleotide repeat 1 kb upstream from the transcription start site of the IGF-I gene. This compared with a frequency of only 32% in healthy populations (both men and women) (P < 0.004). Next, we determined that for 116 healthy Caucasian men and women the 192/192 genotype was associated with lower serum IGF-I levels than all other genotypes (192/192: 129 +/- 7 ng/mL vs. others: 154 +/- 7 ng/mL, P = 0.03). We also noted that subjects possessing one 194-bp allele exhibited serum IGF-I levels 25% higher than those homozygous for 192 bp (192/192), (P < 0.005) even after correction for age and sex. Similarly, for men with the 192/192 genotype, serum IGF-I concentrations were lower than any other genotype (145 +/- 10 ng/mL vs. 183 +/- 9 ng/ml P < 0.02). In conclusion, low serum IGF-I levels found in men with IOM are associated with homozygosity for a specific allele of the IGF-I microsatellite (192/192), and individual variation in serum IGF-I levels is influenced by genetic factors and may be specifically influenced by variation at the IGF-I structural locus. Further family and pedigree studies are needed to characterize the relationship of bone mass acquisition to the IGF-I genotype.